Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
May, 2006
Regional Report

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Small, vigorous tomato plants acclimate quickly in a compost-enriched soil.

Tips for Success With Tomatoes

During 25 years of doing a radio talk show in the Denver/Rocky Mountain region, I have answered hundreds of questions on growing tomatoes. They are among my favorite garden vegetables (or "fruits," if you prefer).

You've no doubt heard many rules about growing prize-winning tomatoes, directions for careful planting, suggestions of fertilizers and pruning tips. But not everyone has time to go for the blue ribbon; we just want flavorful tomatoes fresh from the garden, red ripe and juicy.

Traditionally, tomato transplants are set outside after the danger of frost has passed (around May 15 at elevations a mile high or lower). I have found that one trick for a long harvest season is to stagger plantings or plant different varieties, such as short-season, mid-season, and late-season types. Choose some determinate varieties (growing to a specific height and producing fruit all at once), and some indeterminate (plants that continue to grow, flower, and produce fruit until the last frost in autumn).

If you have already planted tomatoes, now is a good time to plant for a midsummer harvest. Then around July 4th you can do a last planting for a fall harvest. Just be sure to count back from the last frost date in your area, and plant varieties that produce ripe fruit a week or more before the beginning of below-freezing temperatures. Or be prepared to be on tomato patrol to cover the plants with a frost blanket when cold nights are forecast.

Picking Out the Right Tomato Plants
When shopping for tomato plants, look for healthy plant color, a vigorous, healthy root system, and the absence of insect pests, including whiteflies and aphids. Look for the letters VFNT (meaning the variety has disease resistance) after the tomato's name on the plant tag.

Provide Healthy, Rich Soil
While it's true that tomatoes do best in a soil that's teaming with life, rich in humus, and the right pH, you can produce a good crop of tomatoes in most gardens across the region, unless your yard is a rocky cliff, bone dry sand, or a swamp.

Prepare the soil with compost, at least one-third by volume. Dig each hole a food wide and a foot deep. Remove any clods or lumps of the old soil from the planting soil.

Planting Transplants
While you may have been told to plant transplants deep, all you really have to do is set the transplants as deep as your prepared soil will allow. Transplants can get leggy and tall at this time of year, so do the best you can, and don't get caught up in digging down to China!

Stake tomato plants to help prevent rot, and use mulch at the base of the plants. A good mulch of pine needles, clean wheat straw, or another organic material for the plants to sprawl over will work just fine.

Watering and Fertilizing
After the plants have been transplanted and before fruit set, fertilize with a balanced tomato food, such as 10-10-10 or similar analysis. Apply as directed on the fertilizer label. Work the fertilizer around each plant and gently work into the soil. Water in well.

Keep the soil moisture even, avoiding the wet and dry cycles that can cause the fruit to crack. Using mulch will help to maintain soil moisture as well as suppress weed invasion.

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